Jump into just about any internet comment section and you will find frenzied web surfers blaming Clinton, Bush, Obama, or a slew of other executive office holders past and present for all of the universe’s ills.
The First Amendment protects diaspora of commentary that encompasses everything from op-eds to SNL skits to political talk shows to reddit comments and beyond, but it doesn’t exist in China.
Try lampooning, criticizing, or disagreeing with the leadership in Beijing and you’ll be singing a far different tune…Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang’ comes to mind.
It’s something that many people have found out the hard way. Reports indicate that 20 people have been detained following the publication of a letter critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The letter appeared on the website for Wujie news, a state backed outlet. It was later deleted, but the BBC has provided a link to the cached version (most browsers will automatically translate this to English)
The letter calls for President Xi to step down and was prompted by his February visit to state run TV and newspaper offices. During those visits Xi told journalists that “their primary duty was to obey the Communist Party.”
It’s no secret that the Chinese haven’t been the poster children for human rights. In their 2015 World Report on China, Human Rights Watch cited them for engaging in activity that “systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule.”
Given the Chinese government’s stance towards free speech, the decision by a state run media outlet to call for the president’s resignation requires a major pair of cajones as journalists were putting more than just their own freedom on the line. In addition to the offending writers, Chinese authorities reportedly rounded up a freelance journalist, and harassed and possibly detained family members of an activist known as Mr. Wen, according to CNBC.
“I told them very clearly that I could not admit to something that had nothing to do with me,” Mr. Wen said. “I told them very clearly that I didn’t write the letter and had not helped anyone to distribute it, and I had not issued the letter on any websites.”
Chinese authorities have remained mum on the issue, but a post on the WeChat page of freelance writer Jia Jia indicated that he had been released.
Rounding up almost two dozen people over the online distribution of a letter that criticizes the president is an abhorrent abuse of basic human rights, and it’s far from China’s first rodeo. The Chinese government has been hammered by rights watchdog groups for its hostile stance toward activists, writers, and others.
This latest incident comes at an increasingly complex time for U.S.-Chinese relations. In accepting UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang, Beijing has taken a major step in global efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Territorial disputes between China, Japan, and the Philippines in the South China Sea have led to disagreements between the U.S. and China over maritime issues. And there has been tension between the two countries over “conduct and norms in cyberspace.”
President Obama is expected to meet with President Xi when he comes to Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit this week. While major foreign policy issues with the fellow world power are likely to be on the agenda, human rights should be as well.
The internet, the growth of social media, and worldwide exposure to local issues has created an environment where journalists can call attention to serious rights abuses if only they have the gumption to do so. Chinese activists have done just that, and President Obama has a unique opportunity to help them carry the torch. After calling on Cuba’s government to allow its citizens to speak their minds without fear, Obama must continue to do so with the Chinese. Advocating for the release of those still detained over this letter would be a start, but demanding religious freedom, free association, free assembly, and free speech for all Chinese people is a must.